On a low start in Wisconsin, we went to a supermarket and got a bunch of food for the trip. Badlands was still ~9 hours away, so the first night we landed in Minnesota on a campground right next to Mississippi river in Great River Bluffs State Park.
By mutual conclusion, this campsite was probably the most underwhelming of all our spots. Featuring no majestic views, it offered 31 identical spots for cars and RVs in the middle of the forest, with some amenities located nearby. The thunderstorm kept us awake at night and the ground muddy. I failed dreadfully attempting to start a fire in the light evening rain.
Minnesota was also a place of our first argument: it was a conceptual one. In short, Jackson (to my horrified surprise) was vaguely imagining us using conventional camping spots during the whole trip (aka paid camping). A Wisconsin-born, he didn’t know of any existing alternatives to this in the USA, and nope, we didn’t discuss or research this issue before taking off. Needless to say, this idea was perfectly contrary to my entire image of the world, my values, and everything I thought was right.
Coming from Russia and having done some camping there, I’m used to just winging it. You get off the road, hike a little bit off to the forest, find a nice stream or a lake and set camp right there; without any need to talk to someone, plan, reserve, and certainly you do not pay for it! The thought that it could be different here in the USA was shocking and infuriating to me. The nature should be free for everyone to enjoy, not compartmentalized into campsites for $25 a night. No way I’m doing that! Poor Jackson witnessing my passionate riot was likely starting to regret ever getting involved with me…
The answer came with Google and it’s name was dispersed camping. In reality, in the US you can camp for free anywhere you want, as long as it is a part of Public Land.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages public land across the country. We downloaded US Public Lands app which shows exact borders of public land around you.
National Forests, National Grasslands, National Seashores are OK to camp in, as long as you adhere to a simple set of rules: drive away from the main road or highway at least 200 feet, use extreme caution when making fire, research areas where it’s prohibited for the high fire danger (dry season), follow sanitation guidelines and have enough food / water to support yourself. And obviously know where you are and where the hell you’re going. That’s about it.
The only caveat is that East of Mississippi almost all of the land is privately-owned. So, we had to get creative, using friend’s backyards, sneaking in on the sides of the roads in State Parks etc.
I have to say, that you get used to sleeping in a tent every night pretty quickly. I remember I was a little uneasy (well, actually dreading) about sleeping in a tent after a warm, soft bed. Somehow you just learn to roll with it. Or I did.